A while back, my Facebook feed started to be populated by cheesy images with even cheesier "motivational" statements exhorting the reader to trust in the universe, or to follow their dreams, or perhaps, via the medium of doggerel, to hang on in there.
Increasingly fascinated yet repelled by these, and also unable to resist the opportunity to snark, I started to collect some of the more egregious examples in a blog, vomitinducing.tumblr.com. A number of themes quickly emerged. There are many groups that combine bad science with motivational messages ("Create your future from your future not your past"), and others that are explicitly religious. Some are pure passive-aggressiveness. Kittens, however, are in surprisingly short supply, given the general rule of thumb that the internet is made of cats.
What particularly struck me when I started looking was how startlingly reductive the portrayal of women in these images is. They are mostly portrayed either as lonely, as half of a white, straight couple, or as mothers (or grandmothers). We are reduced to cliches, as needing to be completed by a husband or children. There's often an unpleasantly judgmental tone about them too: you don't have to look hard for explicit condemnation of sexually liberated behaviour or images cheerleading for abstinence – one reads: "I am a lady, I don't party or sleep around to get attention. Yes, we do still exist." Others just put women down http://goo.gl/6mGyQ http://goo.gl/QDKTM, while another seemed to encourage rape: the woman portrayed is passive; a perfect victim.
Many set impossibly high standards for women to attain, whether it's in how you give birth or in how you eat and exercise – with all the attendant implicit (or, indeed, explicit) criticism of women who fail. They all have a very specific benchmark of beauty: as in the image of the woman with the weights, women to aspire to are young, blonde, white, toned, tanned and thin. Even those purporting to celebrate difference don't stray very far from the norm: one oft-posted image features a plus-sized model who is nonetheless white, young and pretty with a glossy mane of hair – and who doesn't appear to be terribly overweight. Another pitches women against another woman. Another dislikeable subset is the portrayal of women as passively needing a man to complete them. I particularly dislike the frankly smug and sanctimonious motherhood images: the implication is that a woman can't be fulfilled unless she's a mother and can't have known love; and that any kind of pre-parenthood life was empty and shallow. Others portray women as living life through their children – in a rather creepy and occasionally pathetic way.
Perhaps the most objectionable of these are the ones that seek to guilt-trip or humiliate women who don't breastfeed ("Because during the zombie apocolypse [sic] you wont make it to the store for formula!"). Some of the images I've seen border on unacceptably hostile bullying. One deploys guilt and dodgy science, while another, featuring a zombie, is just plain jawdropping.
Petra Boynton, a sex and relationships researcher at University College London, says: "I've seen messages about 'perfect' children that carry with them subtle, and not so subtle, ableist messages. I can see why such messages might appeal, and appreciating them isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's more the way they're shared and the values about parenting they carry that I like a whole lot less."
Much of the sentiment in these messages is trite and often the imagery – designed to stand out in a busy social feed – can be unsubtle or downright ugly. They're easy to poke fun at, especially when you start unpacking the messaging. But underneath the saccharine expressions of emotion is a more subtle misogyny, and we should be careful about sharing such messages.
Have you seen any similar messages on Facebook that you've found insulting or offensive?
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